Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man, has been transferred from a Siberian prison to Moscow to face trial for alleged embezzlement and money laundering. Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion, but human rights activists say the case against the former oil tycoon is politically motivated to punish him for criticizing the Kremlin.
A spokeswoman for the Khamovniki District Court in Moscow, Anna Usacheva, confirms that Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business associate Platon Lebedev have been transferred to the capital, where a trial against them is scheduled to begin on March 3. They are charged with embezzlement of nearly one trillion rubles, about $27 billion at Tuesday's exchange rate, and of laundering an additional $12 billion.
Khodorkovsky was head of the private Yukos Oil Company until his arrest in 2003. Two years later, he was given an eight-year prison sentence, which he has been serving in Russia's Chita region near China. Yukos was subsequently dismantled and its assets were nationalized.
The head of Russia's For Human Rights organization, Lev Ponomarev, told VOA that Khodorkovsky's imprisonment had a chilling effect on criticism by businesses of the Kremlin.
Ponomarev says Russia's entire business community bowed to authority, served it, and filled its campaign coffers with money. He says he has seen no movements that would indicate the position of Russian business was different from that of the Kremlin.
The activist notes that many Russian businesspeople would likely share Khodorkovsky's fate if they spoke out.
Before his arrest and imprisonment, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was known to have political ambitions and business analysts considered Yukos finances to be transparent.
Lev Ponomarev says Russia's human rights community will be monitoring the new trial to help protect the legal rights of the accused, who face more time in prison if convicted.
Khodorkovsky is facing a separate charge for an alleged sexual assault against a former cellmate in 2006. The cellmate, Alexander Kuchma, slashed the businessman's face reportedly out of revenge. But another inmate, Denis Yurinsky, who supervised Khodorkovsky in a prison sewing shop, told the Kommersant-Vlast Weekly magazine that authorities put Kuchma up to make a false charge to discredit Khodorkovsky's parole application.